The Medieval Review 12.04.06

Clark, James G. The Benedictines in the Middle Ages. Monastic Orders. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. 374. $50. ISBN 978-1-84383-623-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Steven Vanderputten
Ghent University
Steven.Vanderputten@UGent.be

Boydell's series Monastic Orders, edited by Janet Burton, aims to provide a readership of students and specialists with concise yet comprehensive introductions to the various incarnations of the monastic ideal in the Middle Ages. Preceded by Michael Robson's The Franciscans and Frances Andrews's The Other Friars (covering Carmelite, Augustinian, Sack and Pied Friars), the present volume was published almost simultaneously with Janet Burton's and Julie Kerr's tome The Cistercians. Clark's assignment must have been both a rewarding and a thankless one. Whereas the other authors could draw on and contrast their own account to various others published over the previous half century, the last general discussion of Benedictine history in the Middle Ages was that in Dom Schmitz's Histoire de l'ordre de Saint-Benoît, published in six volumes in 1942-1957. Clark's brief for this book therefore included addressing the results of more than six decades of research into the Benedictine phenomenon, and of new developments in historical studies in general.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first, "The Making of a European Order," discusses Benedictinism's origins in Late Antiquity, St Benedict's authorship of the Rule, the Rule's dissemination and--initially limited--attraction to monastic groups, and the movement's institutional history from the Carolingian period until the middle of the twelfth century. The second chapter discusses monastic observance, looking at how the Rule and customaries shaped life inside the monastery. "Society" discusses the interaction between the cloister and the world, documenting the progressive interweaving of monks' and laypeople's interests and discussing the methodologies and consequences thereof. "Culture" looks at the intellectual and artistic attitudes and productions of Benedictines, covering a wide range of subjects ranging from manuscript production to literary production. The two final chapters look at Benedictinism in the later Middle Ages and the transitional period designed here as "Reformations" in the early modern period. The volume finishes with a select bibliography.

Students will find much of interest in this book, and specialists will relish the opportunity to evaluate Clark's narrative as the first general account of the subject in many decades. For all the well- informed and well-written passages--and there are many, for Clark has made a tremendous effort to present a wide ranging, geographically diversified picture of the Benedictine phenomenon--this book's main problem lies in its lack of a clear position with regard to the methodological and conceptual problems underlying the study of "traditional" monasticism in the medieval period. For instance, what the author fails to mention in his introduction is that there is a good reason why no scholar has ventured to substitute Schmitz's opus. Despite all its merits, Schmitz's account was driven by a discourse according to which the shared observance of Benedict's Rule in the early and central Middle Ages was sufficient to infer the existence of a pan-European network, prefiguring the Order of later times. This "evolutionistic" approach, popular with historians of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries but now all but abandoned, received its death blow with the early criticism of Kassius Hallinger's Gorze-Kluny (1950-1951), which for the central Middle Ages postulated the existence of semi- institutionalized, hierarchical networks, the division of which reflected the divided political allegiances of Western Europe's regions. Since then, the focus of research has shifted in several directions. For the early Middle Ages, scholars have looked at the origins and tradition of St Benedict's Rule, the Rule's relation to other examples of monastic legislation and the complicated history of its observance through to the tenth and early eleventh centuries. For the mid-to-late eleventh century and beyond, specialists have expanded their interest to include monasticism's cultural development and societal embedding, the nature and impact of monastic reform movements, and the development of new forms of supra- institutional government, driven mainly by Cluny (with the formation of the ecclesia Cluniacensis in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries). This is also true for later periods, and discussions of the Benedictine Order as such have been mostly limited to the activities of the General Chapter.

Given that the field has changed so fundamentally over the last six decades, the aforementioned insights and debates should shape any general narrative of Benedictine history. Unfortunately, in this case it has not, or at least not sufficiently and not explicitly enough. The first chapter, for instance, contains a discourse that is, in essence, the same as that used by Schmitz and that confuses the continuing appeal of St Benedict's Rule to medieval monks and patrons with the apparent perpetuity of an actual movement. For much of the period covered in this part of the book (c. 500-c. 1200), in fact all of it except for the few final decades, nothing indicated that there would ever be an order resembling that of the Cistercians or of several other monastic movements. Even though Clark repeatedly makes claims to support this view, actually arguing that the book "is not an account of convents and congregations but rather of a monastic custom and its evolution...It traces the transmission of the Rule, its rise to prominence, then pre-eminence...and the regional movements that secured, and renewed its place in the clerical and lay society of Latin Europe. It charts their institutional progress, from isolated colony to corporate enterprise invested with seigniorial, fiscal and commercial capital," the overall framing of his material suggests the contrary. The confusion created by the author's ambiguous use of words now invested with a specific meaning (ordo, order, reform, congregation, and so on) could have been easily avoided had the author devoted more pages to a clearer historiographical framing of the study of Benedictine monasticism. Surely it is underestimating the readership of this book to assume that it would object to a concise discussion of how, over the last half century or so, the study of Benedictinism has profoundly changed, and that the origins of this change lie in the profound changes experienced both by the community of historians in general and in society at large. Throughout the book, research deriving from recent approaches to monastic development is taken out of its historiographical context, resulting in a wealth of fascinating data but ultimately doing little to buffer the confusion created in the introduction and the first chapter.

I regret to say that the bibliography at the end of this book is equally unhelpful. I can appreciate the authors' decision to limit his bibliography to key titles written in English to meet the needs of an audience consisting primarily of native speakers. But the omissions are nevertheless curious. One wonders, for instance, why Giles Constable's Cluny in the Twelfth Century: Further Studies is preferred over his seminal The Reformation of the Twelfth Century; or why John Van Engen's ground-breaking paper "The Crisis of Cenobitism" is ignored. Omitted also are references to the work of Barbara Rosenwein and Dominique Iogna-Prat, Joachim Wollasch, the "Dresden School" of monastic historians, and to the multitude of studies on the development of Cluny and its congregational structures in the eleventh century, on the early development of the Benedictine Order and its General Chapter. In addition, the decision to limit the selective overview of primary sources almost entirely to editions of English material to this reviewer seems hard to justify. I fail to see why editions of sources from English institutions would be more relevant to an international audience than those from institutions such as Cluny, Gorze, Fécamp, Reichenau, Sankt-Gallen, and so on. Surely the author, when trying to accommodate his readers, could have presented a selection of sources translated into modern English, combined perhaps with some editions of key texts which await translation?

Many readers will enjoy this book, and it certainly merits a wide audience. It is also a must-read for specialists and is bound to become a key reference in future discussions about ways of telling Benedictinism's story in the Middle Ages. But it is unfortunate that is was conceived almost as an update of the kind of overviews monastic historians used to write in the first half of the twentieth century. Rather than aiming to craft a worthy successor to Schmitz' multi-tome Histoire, the author should have had the ambition to show how, since then, the study of Benedictinism itself has been transformed. What emerges here is a staid picture of current scholarship, one that is wholly undeserved.